Whether you’re a STEM undergraduate student, graduate student, post-doc, professor, medical doctor, staff member or something else, navigating Academia is exhausting.
Successful STEM members have to be skilled at many tasks: learning and teaching, initiating and maintaining collaborations, designing research experiments, interpreting results, giving professional talks, writing papers, and more.
With all of these responsibilities already burdening many academics, devoting time and effort into understanding and confronting your unconscious biases may not seem pressing. However, as we hope you’ll soon find, it’s well worth the time.
Diverse teams are more productive
Before we get too far, we should note a few studies have shown diversifying teams can actually reduce productivity.
These studies are usually in traditional fields, where the type of work has not changed in many years. Adding more women or people of color to such fields often creates more tension and problems than existed before the diversifying efforts.
However. STEM is not that kind of field.
The research is consistent that in large, innovative companies and institutions like universities, diversity is a boon, not a bane.
In large innovative organizations, gender-diverse teams are more productive (Woolley et al 2010; DezsO & Ross 2011; Dawson et al 2014; etc). This is true in the U.S. and internationally as demonstrated in other countries such as Spain (Campbell & Mínguez-Vera 2007) as well. The same is true for ethnically diverse teams (Richard et al 2003; Phillips et al 2006).
A 2013 study even found that in ecology and environmental science, “peer-reviewed publications with gender-heterogeneous authorship teams received 34% more citations than publications produced by gender-uniform authorship teams” (Campbell et al 2013).
So, learning how to work well in diverse groups can not only increase the amount of work your team can do, but the quality of it as well.
The business world is full of examples that support this: A recent analysis of a “global survey of 21,980 firms from 91 countries suggests that the presence of women in corporate leadership positions may improve firm performance” (Noland et al 2016).
But how does diversity improve teams?
A team with diverse backgrounds has diverse ideas and approaches to problem-solving. In one study, “diverse groups outperformed more homogeneous groups not because of an influx of new ideas, but because diversity triggered more careful information processing that is absent in homogeneous groups” (Sinaceur et al 2010). You can read more from that research group here.
But to get the benefits of a diverse group, you have to avoid accidentally sabotaging your team members. That’s where unconscious bias can play a large role.
If you don’t have control of your unconscious bias, it can manifest in ways that negatively impact your team members. The duress can be intentional, or completely accidental.
Unconscious bias can eliminate the potential benefits of having a more diverse team.